Altar, Oeuvre Werkschau joe


The Title

The „Moon-Altar“ is called altar because it is built like a winged altar and shows a moon face on 3 of his 4 states. Obviously the title is rather ironic and refers to appearances only.

This oeuvre is by no means an altar, hasn't been produced for use in a church, and it's not about a ritual worship of the moon or religious, even sectarian content. It was not my intention to accommodate moon faces as I had learned painfully to paint completely unintentionally. That's why it was a surprising discovery to find these moon faces. Apart from their existence, their role in the paintings is rather negligible.

The only wing showing no moon face is the first, smallest, which consists of only two panels. Since the moon has four phases and is not visible in its first phase, this wing would correspond to the new moon as the invisible phase. This analogy already resulted from the construction as, pretty much like the moon, the width of the states cyclically increases and decreases.

The occasion was coincidental, the realization adventurous. I had explained the phenomenon of medieval triptychs to someone. This led to my first own triptych. But these medieval triptychs were not a triptych by chance: the two outer panels were like shutters with which the central panel could be closed depending on the festive occasion. Hence this change of the states was determined liturgically.

A reason for the change of the obverse of my winged altar is not apparent unless one wanted to synchronize the states with the moon phases. Thus, this work raises even more questions than others. Therefore, a special page dedicated to it.

Last but not least I needed a title to label the totality of the 4 individual states all of which I ad hoc named by working number with hyphen. A simple construction with a single hyphen along these lines (578-592) would not reveal the subdivision in states; a grouping (578-579/580-583/584-589/590-592) would be correct, but difficult to read and interpret. Who would want to use such a construction in conversation? No, at least in this case I needed a title, quite informal as it were.

The Problem

In modern » Triptychs (i.e. » Beckmann, » Dix) mechanisms for changing states are no longer envisaged (hence the problem of changing has disappeared) and my own are not meant to be closed as well.

In my eyes this really was a scandal. If there was no reason to change states, the functionality at least should remain. But what use had a functionality to which there was no occasion? Hence 2 questions:
  1. How to do it (technical problem),
  2. and why (contentual problem)?

The Technical Solution

This oeuvre is an answer to the first question as it provides a change mechanism with 4 states:
An animated » simulation in a museum setting shows the sequence as well as the change in dimensions.

The panels have an extreme portray format, much narrower than a towel. This is inevitable, as otherwise the dimensions would grow excessively horizontally - after all wing 3 presents 6 such panels side-by-side. Therefore it is questionable if meaningful content can be produced here at all.

After all, it turned out that each panel had a human dimension (as it happened a person stood in front of a panel standing on the floor that fit exactly into this framework: 162x62 cm, ratio 2.61: 1), and wing three, being the most extreme ensemble, has about the same proportion of a single panel, rotated to landscape format.

The famous » Four Apostles by » Albrecht Dürer (» St. John and St. Peter, » St. Mark and St. Paul) are proportioned even more extreme: 216x76 cm, ratio 2,84:1, and Dürer even positions one head each at the upper end of the canvas.

The outer plates of Grünewalds first state of the » Isenheim Altarpiece (» St. Sebastian, » St. Antonius, see below) measure 232x75 cm and have a ratio of 3:1.

Therefore: no fear for extreme formats. Interestingly, the Isenheim Altarpiece is presented nowadays as 3 different independent triptychs in order to be able to show all of them to the public at the same time: see a photograph from a bird's perspective » Le retable d'Issenheim.. In other words: in loosing the mechanism of change the ritual meaning has also been lost. Nowadays it's art only, no more.

The Contentual Solution

Why all this effort? What should the work represent? At any rate, to paint Christian content seemed to me inconceivable, for one because of my distance to Christianity, or rather to the Christian church, and secondly because I had learned with the greatest difficulty that ideas of any kind means the death of the painting, and finally because I had never illustrated and can not illustrate anyway. Therefore, it was not a question of will.

The multipart nature of this oeuvre seemed to present insurmountable difficulties: The panels of a wing must reveal a meaningful relationship, and the sequence of the states should be consistent as well. Such a puzzle must seem impossible. You could not even dream of a solution. But it is possible, as you can see, only if you push aside all worries and thoughts and leave it to a higher force, let it paint the picture. Otherwise it does not work out anyway. There is nothing next to arbitrariness, rather necessity, strength and unity.

By linking to the phases of the moon the opportunity to change the states could be provided, namely by changing the states parallel to the lunar phases. And this way there appears to be a substantive reference as well: growth, decay and return or becoming, death and rebirth .

The Realization

Seen this way, the whole oeuvre could appear as a construction, as an illustration or an analogy. But obviously this is something else entirely. And how do you explain that? How can such a work see the light of the world?

Although the development of the states suggested by the mechanical design a series of four states with two-four-six-four panels of equal width, but I could not imagine what might have been done from this. The very structure is complicated. How should a work come into being?

But actually, this question does not have that much to do with the convertible design, because basically the painter always starts with the decision about the material to be used. Should it be a large or small painting, on paper, wood or canvas, a landscape format, a portrait format or a square image or an irregular shape? These formal requirements then determine what can emerge within this predetermined area. But never is this preliminary decision as clear as here. And obviously this is not as important as it seems.

Painfully I had learned to give myself to the creative process, which means to want nothing and simply allow to happen, but constantly to be on guard, to do the right thing. How will that be decided? Who decides what is right? This question is equivalent to the question: Who paints? I at least not. I only feel and behave. I could never come up with anything like this in all my life. I have no idea how I should handle such a task.

The Synopsis

The painters of the past had less trouble with multipart paintings, since the theme of the work was usually dictated by the client. Only in modern times the artist emancipated and decided alone what he wanted to create. First, he still addressed the expected needs of his clientele. However, they would soon understand the artist as a kind of prophet, which forced him to create new content.

Interestingly, sporadically works emerged that used this multi-wing setting based on Christianity and ritual functionality without showing Christian contents and without the need or intention to actually change the states and show different contents (see » modern Triptychs).

That phenomenon always had annoyed me. If a multi-winged painting was to be created, at least the mechanical part should be realized. Would it make any sense to arrange multiple images in a fixed way?

In my exhibition at » Leopold-Hoesch-Museum in 1983 two groups of paintings were hung in a way such that they made the impression of a triptych. The two pictures on the right and left of these trinities interacted and referred to the center painting. But all three images were developed independently of each other and this relation had only been found more or less randomly at the occasion of the hanging.

Now, what should be the specificity of a triptych if not the possibility to change the states and cover the center painting? Thus we would have two states at least. Of course, those wings would also carry paintings on their back. Somehow I remembered that the » Isenheim Altarpiece has three states. How would that work? I had no idea.

Corresponding literature I could have consulted was not available, the internet was not invented yet. To spur my imagination, I made a paper model and experimented with it. Thus, the sequence was 2-4-6-3 was born. Thus, the ensemble grows larger and larger and then smaller again, with the last wing giving the impression of a classic triptych, the last 2 center panels joined together to form one bigger canvas.

If the Internet had been invented and populated with content back then as it is today, I would've been informed quickly. The Isenheim Altarpiece does not grow after it has been opened. The 3rd wing is exactly as large as the 2nd. Furthermore, both the center panel of the 1st and the 2nd wing are split in the middle, which is not noticeable from a distance and in usual reproductions; the 2nd center painting is divided by composition as well.

Also, the Isenheim Altarpiece has 2 outer wings in the first state, and thus acts as a triptych in any state. But unlike the wings of the 2nd stage, these wings are not intended to conceal anything, so they don't have any structural function.

The wings of the 3rd state frame a sculpture group, which in turn is designed in the form of a triptych, and have, like the wings of the 2nd state, an irregular shape in order to cover the middle panel. Here we see that the peculiar form of the center paintings results from the triptych shape of the sculpture group, being enlarged in the center area.

The Internet is always good for surprising discoveries: The small triptych » Sagrada Familia con ángel músico, Santa Catalina de Alejandría, Santa Bárbara from » Master of Frankfurt consists of an oblong central painting (78x60 cm) and two wings with nearly the same height (79x27 cm).

This work is shown here with a simple framing reminiscent of the frame of my second and third triptych, without the possibility to move the wings. The dimensions would allow to cover the center painting, and therefore we may assume that the original frame provided the appropriate hinges. The two outer panels are narrower than the center painting; the difference provides the width of the required framework.

Thus this Wikipedia-presentation does not allow the conclusion that this triptych from the beginning of the sixteenth century could be regarded purely formal, as I supposed at first due to the first inspection. Probably I was not wrong to blame the reduction of functionality to modern painting.

If I understand the message of the » Mitteilung des Museo del Prado correctly, the museum, being already in the possession of both wings, could acquire the center painting in 2008. Unfortunately, the » Museo del Prado does not show the triptych as a whole, but each panel separately instead. The representation of the Wikipedia seems to be the only attempt to represent the triptych as a whole. No wonder, then, that the framework was implemented only as a backdrop. Until 1836, the triptych was still united. (Imagery of this unknown Flemish master under » Mm2347 und » Mm2347, Seite 2.) If the triptych could be closed, the outer wings most probably also had paintings on their back. There is no information about that to be found, however.

The Construction

Being a mathematician, I should have enough spatial sense, but I still have problems to imagine the mechanical construction. Instead of using a paper model, this time I used an Excel table. Colors, patterns, thick and thin lines and red dots for the hinges provided the means to produce a topview of the four different states to give an idea of how the mechanism works.

However, I fail to see how the two individual panels 584 and 589 are folded in between. In the scheme, a double hinge, so I would like to call it, is used but this must be collapsed when unfolding in order to not disturb the rhythm. Next time I go to my store and remember this, I must have a look at it.

In the closed state, the wings are stacked like a sandwich: 2, 4, 6 and 3 plates. It is easy to see that the last plate (No. 591) is not divided in two because it doesn't need to be opened.

Actually the mechanism is very simple: you can open the wings one by one or in groups. The opening of the first state is obvious and results in the 2nd state.

Opening two layers of the sandwich at once results in the 3rd state, where the outer wings have to be open the additionally. Opening 3 layers at once results in the 4th state.

All wings have to be completely closed in order to change to the next stage. This is the secret which I have forgotten, and that's why it was hard for me to imagine the mechanism. In the scheme, each of the thick outlines denotes a mobile unit, the hinges are represented by red elements, 2 of them working different than the others. As a rule, one unit consists of 2 plates (front and back), connected firmly to each other back-to-back, indicated by the thin line. Plates of the same color belong to the same state, so we have 4 colors for the 4 states.

First State

In reality, the panels are of course much thinner and the work is not as bulky as it looks here in the diagram.

First Transition

Here the simulation of the opening: The first two panels are folded outwards, pushed back 180°, thereby showing the former back as a wing.

Second State

Here we see nicely that 2 panels each are combined by their back: The left wing of the first state is the back of the outer left wing of the 2nd state. The outermost wings of the 3rd state are an exception, which is why they are patterned for better illustration: they have no back panel, as does the last center painting.

Second Transition
The first two panels are folded back.

Now five panels are moved at once. We also need to move the rack away from the wall a bit to make room for panel 578.

Bisher war das Werk immer auf einem eigens angefertigten Ständer mit Rollen befestigt. Es ist aber auch vorgesehen, es direkt an der Wand zu befestigen, sobald es einen festen Platz gefunden hat. In diesem Fall wird das Werk natürlich nicht mehr bewegt.

So far, the work has always been attached to a specially made stand with casters. It may be attached directly to the wall as soon as it has found a permanent place. In this case, the work itself of course is longer moved, only the wings, as is the case in church.

Now the right side is opened as well. Like no. 589, No. 584 has no reverse.

Third State

The double-mounted panels are summarized in these diagrams by a broader framework that represents the actual frame (made of planed, stained battens) and its thin center line should identify the two backs.

The thickness of this bar frame is part of the work, because battens of differing thickness would obstruct the last center painting:

Third Transition
Now we can open the last state, moving 7 panels at once on each side. And again we must move the rack a bit from the base of the wall.

Fourth State

The first three states disappeared like a sandwich behind the two wings.

The two central panels of the last state are merged, creating the impression of a classic triptych, resulting in 15 panels instead of 16.

The Static Problems

The whole construction must then be upheld and stabilized somehow, too. The construction is of course extremely heavy and must be held securely in each state despite the varying weight distribution. To this end I have for one constructed a wall mount that has been never used yet; and also a pedestal with castors, which has proved very successful. This way the monster can easily be moved on level ground.

The wings in the states are held by clamps that I have bent from the old wire hangers. When changing the states you have to loosen a holder, open the wing and secure it with another - this is necessary, especially in the third state with almost 4 m span.

The Quaternity

The idea of a polyptych was the result of the question of how the many still existing convertible altars in our churches are constructed, how to construct such a thing like that, how many plates such a design would have to have for purely mechanical reasons.

At this point, I didn't even ask the question why and on which occasion such a work of art should under go a transition. It's pretty clear that 2 states are the minimum, I had heard of 3. Even the idea to make something with 4 states struck me as absurd, so I was quite confused, and in a telephone conversation I joked that the only idea corresponding to the number 4 I had was the 4 seasons or the 4 phases of the moon.

Now this remark turned the tide, because already for some time, without knowing why, I had painted moon faces. I took this at hint and decided to get involved in this adventure and even subjected myself to the condition topaint each state during the corresponding moon phase (which was simply stupid).

At that time, I had studied » Carl Gustav Jung, who was inclined to instruct the Catholic Church to supplement » Trinity with another element to achieve » Quaternity. For this 4th element, he strongly recommended the » Theotokos, Maria as God-mother, as a much-needed female member, and thought he could see already the appropriate signs among the faithful. So also in this respect, the four as a number did not seem inappropriate. The German Wikipedia-article » Quaternität reports of a church fathers of the twelfth century who already had this same idea. Probably Jung knew that fact, too, as he collected ancient books, in particular with respect to religion.

The Simulation

 Start presents a show which simulates the progression of the states in a museum setting. This presentation is very helpful, but not flexible with respect to dimensions; quite naturally the representation should be as big as can be, but then all states should have the same ratio. More details can be studied using the single presentation of the states, given by the link underneath the simulation.

Here all states at once:

The Remarks

The whole story started by accident. I had to explain the term triptych to my assistant. In doing so I noticed that I myself only had very faint ideas about such an oeuvre. In particular I couldn't imagine to create such a work myself, although I knew lots of them and had studied the triptychs of Max Beckmann in particular quite intensely.

That's why I happened to pain the first 2 of my 3 triptychs, but these were, like all modern triptychs, not really examples of this type, because those had been used in ordinance and the states were changed due to particular locations. Modern triptychs didn't have a 2nd state, not to speak of more of them.

So I tried to imagine how such a transition might look like and developed a small paper model. In the remarks in my oeuvre catalogue I write:

[...]The moon has four phases, and by now I had painted the moon often as moon face. Wasn't that a reference? Moreover, the feminist research had suggested that the early societies were not only organized matrilineally but that their gods were invariably female, the male gods only adjuncts (orig. Buhlknaben) (» Heide Göttner-Abendroth: » Die Göttin und ihr Heros).

Of course, the idea of rebirth belonged to the religious basic components, and because of the eye-catching 28-day rhythm both significant for the moon and women all three, moon and woman and goddess, belonged together. The moon was reborn constantly, grew, took off, died, disappeared for three days in the underworld and reliably appeared anew. He was the perfect symbol of the eternal return. That's how the snake came into the picture, which as a living being celebrated this eternal recurrence, the 'dying and becoming', namely through the moult. Therefore, the Cretan priestess shows snakes - these were the sacred animals of the cult. And I had already painted a goddess with a snake! The serpent in the Old Testament, as I had learned from the dissertation of a Protestant theologian, was none other than the goddess, which preceded the vengeance god Yahweh and was subdued by him. According to her the biblical narratives had to be read as a partisan war report (» Geschichte der Matriarchatstheorien (history of the theory of matriarchy): Christa Mulack: » Die Weiblichkeit Gottes). [...]

Back at that time, these ideas were ubiquitous and have since been found to be largely ideology. Anyway, this oeuvre isn't an illustration anyway. Few have seen it so far, and an art historian who took the trouble to study the various states for 2 hours and soak up impressions, finally resigned. All his knowledge of » Iconography didn't help him at all, so he didn't find a key for understanding. The composition of the states and their sequence were totally convincing to him, however. "Somebody should do a PhD about it." was his summary.

The Exhibition

This work has been exhibited publicly only once, 22.9. to 6.10.1985 in the Town Hall of the city » Löhne where I used to live back then (see exhibition poster » No. 601). Of course that was not an appropriate setting and the response was basically zero.

Said art historian was director of a museum and wanted to produce a great show with my works, but was forced to postpone these plans due to organizational reasons and never contacted me again.

It was about time to acknowledge that I had not managed to establish myself financially. Hence I had to look for other ways to feed my family. So I became an entrepreneur.

In my first office, a former branch of the Volksbank (Credit Union) in the district » Gohfeld of my hometown Löhne, I wanted to know if you can accommodate such a mighty work in a normal room.

The photograph left shows that it is possible, and I exacerbated this experiment by hanging my first triptych, also quite big, right next to it (156x325 cm). Fortunately, I made this snapshot, however miserable it is. Unfortunately, other than that I have virtually no documentation, in particular the exhibition in the Town Hall is not documented.

In doing this I of course had the description of » Stephan Lackner in mind who had bought the triptych Temptation in 1937, living in a small apartment in Paris shortly before World War II, finding that the painting was too big for his room, so he had to accommodate by swinging in the wings, so that he practically sat in amidst the painting, which induced a very intense experience, a pleasure he would otherwise most likely not have had.

Apart from » Rembrandt and » Picasso » Max Beckmann was very interesting and important for me; in particular I spent quite some time with his triptychs without ever having the wish to produce one myself. And then, all of a sudden, it happened.

Prior to and after the altar I made 2 more triptychs ( No. 575-577,  No. 605-607), and both, like the first one, don't alter the height of the wings with respect to the height of the middle painting, as Beckmann always did.

This way the whole ensemble is somehow relaxed. The church altars are usually extremely irregular in shape, with some very artificial, rugged image area. In contrast, my work is extremely sober, even boring.

If the individual panels don't have to be moved with respect to each other, they can of course be placed anywhere on the wall. Presumably, the artists didn't publish any regulations in this regard. Hence it is left to the curator and his good taste to hang the 3 pieces at will.

Also, the framing is left to the owner, as a rule, and many be chosen to accommodate the rest of their furnishings. In this respect, I'm not picky either, my frames are usually intended only as a protective frame to prevent damage during storage or transport. This page has wildly experimented with various frames and their effects, as I was curious about this experience I didn't have yet as frames are quite expensive.

The altar and the triptychs are different in this respect. The first triptych is framed so that the wings can be folded, but only to facilitate storing. The other two are framed so that the wings are firmly connected to the central painting.

Hence this is almost a single image, and in fact at that time I developed also paintings on a single canvas having the character of a triptych, and quite significantly so, since the image area is divided by vertical lines, such as  No. 571 made immediately before the first triptych  No. 572-574.

No question, a framework is important for me as well and will support (or diminish) the effect of the painting in its environment and should respect and refer to it. For this page I've experimented quite a lot and with great pleasure with virtual frames in real environments.

If someone wants to frame the triptychs or the altar differently, that would in principle be okay for me. With the altar, you will need to change the design according to its dimensions in order to make the wings fit the last center piece - no idea how that may work out. Two wings must cover the center painting of stage 4 exactly - that's the condition.

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